The Imitation Game struck me as an odd award season film. Not because it does anything different than your usual Oscar bait; once again, this is the tale of an English guy achieving greatness despite/because of disability. However, what seemed odd to me was that, while the film is receiving many award nominations, particularly in the Best Picture category, not many critics are deigning to place the film among their top picks of the year. I found this curious, as the two lists generally have some degree of overlap. Upon seeing the film, though, it’s not hard to understand why this is.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing, the mathematician in World War II who led the team responsible for cracking Enigma, the German encoding device used to mask Nazi tactics and battle plans. The title of the film is dually referential, as the Imitation Game is the test famously developed by Turing to determine whether a machine has achieved humanly realistic cognitive skills, but the film is much more interested in Turing’s personal imitation game. The film heavily implies that Turing falls somewhere in the autism spectrum, as he has trouble with social niceties and deciphering other people’s emotional states. This is the aforementioned Oscar-baiting disability, but as far as this film is concerned, I don’t think that is as problematic as it could have been.
That isn’t to say that I do not recognize the inherent problem of having yet another able-bodied actor receive acclaim for portraying disability; this is an all too common trend that really needs to be placed under a microscope. However, I wouldn’t say that Cumberbatch’s portrayal is any more offensive than, say, his portrayal of similar characteristics on the television show Sherlock. Turing’s struggles are not taken lightly, but his character is more than a one-dimensional representation of autism. It’s Turing’s brilliance that takes center stage, and while the film implies that he wouldn’t have been able to realize his savant achievements were it not for his anti-social proclivities, it also showcases how those same proclivities made it difficult for him to gain the time and resources to make the first primitive computer.
And yet, the film’s screenplay makes this all feel more than a little trite. The dialogue is laced with notions that those we don’t imagine anything of do things the rest of us couldn’t imagine, repeated to the point of obviously trying to become a tagline. The supporting characters shift from distrusting to unwaveringly supporting Turing with almost clockwork efficiency, with only the barest of connecting tissue demonstrating how any of those characters developed. The only character whose depths are really explored is Turing himself, and while Cumberbatch is on par with his usual paradoxical charisma cum social awkwardness, his performance isn’t something to praise too much. Again, think Sherlock, but with less malice and more crying.
That’s why this film isn’t great. It’s not bad by any means, but the film’s problems all come down to its purpose for existing. Yes, it is quite informative of the uplifting and tragic life of Alan Turing, but underneath that intention, this is a film made for the purpose of bringing home gold statues. This is the kind of film that award committees will eat up, but critics are starting to become disillusioned with. We’ve seen this type of film too often, and no able-bodied actor doing his best disability impression is going to make the sea of same-ness any less gray. The Imitation Game is probably worth a rental when it comes to home video, but as far as award season greats go, this is not one of them.
If you’re looking for the epitome of the type of film I’m talking about, look to The King’s Speech. Or even this year’s The Theory of Everything. Leave your thoughts on the genre in the comments below.